Provoking Healthy Conversation

In terms of the uproar it caused, the political graffiti that appeared around Shillong recently can only be called a raging success. And despite the biased and predictable condemnation of both the church and the state – who were the intended targets of the artists – I think the emergence of the graffiti is a positive for the public discourse in Meghalaya.

It is evident that the activists who are responsible for the graffiti did not intend to make friends – or win praise for their efforts – and the images they chose were deliberately provocative. But not mindlessly so; none of the messages appear to have been chosen simply to offend. If that had been the intent the artists would not have taken so much trouble. On the contrary, these images and messages seem carefully selected and crafted to point out what the activists see as the repeated hypocrisy and criminality of both institutions. And far from being angry about baseless accusations, the reactions of both the politicians and the church have come across more as those of people who are indignant that their actions have finally been challenged out in the open.

The image that caused the most ruckus – a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI along with the words ‘Arrest This Man’ printed beneath it – is perhaps the most obvious of all, despite claims from various quarters that it was mysterious and hard to understand.

News of the campaign to have the Pope arrested for human rights abuses received worldwide coverage – including here in Shillong – only two and half months ago, in mid-April. The campaign, described as ‘lunatic’ by some commentators, was intended to put pressure on the British government to disallow the September UK visit that the Vatican has proposed for the Pope.

It is hard to believe that the arrest could or would be allowed to take place – though the campaigners are quite serious – but they have a very good reason for pursuing it; namely, that we should all be equal under the law. The Vatican’s standard reply to such claims is that the Pope is the head of a nation state and thus above prosecution – as he is diplomatically immune. This is an idea that is now being challenged. Countless lives have been ruined, among them some childhood contemporaries of mine, while errant priests – and there have been thousands – were moved from one post to another, protected from prosecution by their senior leaders who consistently conspired to keep cases of child sexual abuse in the church out of the criminal courts.

The question of whether or not the Pope is personally responsible for the cover-up of such crimes is irrelevant. He is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus it is his responsibility to answer for the acts of his clergy – and to explain the Vatican’s previous policy of extracting papal oaths of secrecy from the people involved in such cases.

If we look at another contemporary disaster – BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – it is their CEO Tony Hayward who was called before the United States Congress to answer questions about the debacle, from the causes of the accident through to the way that the company has handled the clean up.

Mr Hayward could not lay the blame at the feet of his subordinates, hide behind diplomatic immunity or try and pay off people to buy their silence; he had to take an oath before a government inquiry and tell the truth.

Why shouldn’t we demand the same from a church? Whether or not you agree with the proposition, the question is a valid one and needs to be asked.

The charge that the graffiti artists had intended to besmirch the sanctity of the institution through their actions is quite bizarre. If anything, it is the churches’ own actions that have besmirched their sanctity. A church on its own – and I say this as a confirmed Catholic and churchgoer myself – is not God and neither is the Pope. They are man-made institutions, and to consider any man-made institution beyond reproach is both dangerous and foolhardy. Moreover, the public should be suspicious of any organisation that tries to claim that it is above censure, while any government or institution that attempts to ban criticism is one that has to be watched very carefully.

Moving on to some of the other images that caused a stir, I think the one that invoked U Thlen and linked it to the issue of uranium mining is the cleverest – and it’s also the image that could do the most harm to the government.

It took the traditional Khasi story of U Thlen – the demon serpent who will grant immense wealth to those who sate its need for human flesh – and updated it into a modern morality tale. The crucial detail that did this was swapping the head of the serpent with that of the Governor of Meghalaya – the Indian Government’s official representative in the state.

From there the rest is easy to work out: if U Thlen is the Central Government, then the nongshohnoh – or murderer for hire – is the state government, and it is the environment that is being sacrificed to make the corrupt few wealthy. From a public relations perspective this image could do a lot of damage if used in the rural areas where the uranium deposits are situated, as fear of the Thlen and the nongshohnoh is still quite prevalent.

Looking to what the graffiti says about the artists, we can deduce a few things already. Clearly it is the work of more than one person, as the scale of the exercise would have required a vehicle and several people to apply the stencils. The group are also obviously well educated and from a Khasi-Christian background, but maintain a more secular and western world view. It is why the messages have stung so much. This is the youth of today rebuking their fathers and mothers, using the faults they have witnessed firsthand as ammunition in their fight – and reminding them of their culture at the same time.

These artists have not resorted to violence or intimidation to get their point across, and the only law they have really broken is defacing public and private property. On a positive note, we should be thankful that they are rejecting the notion that the best way to get ahead in this city is to join the state government in some capacity and play the kickback game. The sight of young graduates taking positions in the local bureaucracy and quickly learning the rules of the graft from their seniors has been a disheartening one for some time.

We need more citizens to come forward and demand accountability from our leaders. Neither the church nor the government should be afraid of such criticism; it is intended to keep them honest, and overreacting the way they have has made it clear that there is some truth in the accusations of the artists. If the messages had been frivolous, no one would have needed to condemn them.

Finally, the population itself is implicated in the graffiti campaign. The real target of the movement is the electorate; you get the government that you deserve. The religious images were linked with the messages about government corruption because we are living in a majority Christian state. The artists are telling us that we should be disgusted on two fronts – as Christians and as voters.

The pointed question behind all of the graffiti is, ‘How long will you let them get away with this?’

The Shillong Times, July 8, 2010